Monday, November 17, 2014

Dawn of the robot comedians

This robot is funnier than I am.

Or if it isn't now, it will be one day. I'm just going to face up to it.

Over the years, I've received more than a few compliments for my quick wit and intellectual humor. I'm not trying to sound conceited. I'm just trying to hold on to one of the few things I've got going for me that hasn't hit obsolescence yet (I'm a writer so those things grow fewer by the day.) Now, all of that is going to change.

Meet Data (see video above). He is the work of Heather Knight, a roboticist who runs her own robotics outfit called Marilyn Monrobot. Knight is currently working on a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. There, she is focusing on developing "socially aware robots" and "sensor-based performance art." Data, for example, tells jokes.

I'm not talking about one of those cheesy plastic robots you'd get at toy stores during the 1970s or 80s. You know the ones. You press a button and they tell a prerecorded joke in a voice that sounds something like Stephen Hawking after a few beers? Yeah, that's it. Data is much different.

He is designed to deliver a stand-up routine in front of an actual audience. An algorithm creates jokes and the robot tells them. Cameras in the eyes scan the faces in the crowd and run them through an analysis program, gauging the reaction to the joke. Microphones determine the amount of laughter and locate where in the room the most laughter is coming from. If the joke bombs then Data creates a new one and sees what sticks.

Just as any other comedian would. One of the key differences, however, is that Data won't get discouraged.

One of the most fascinating things about this to me is how the robot is meant to pick up on what is actually subtle and nuanced human behavior. It's difficult for me sometimes to tell the difference between say, a joke and an insult. Others who land on various other locations on the "I just don't get people" spectrum can miss humor altogether. This isn't just novelty technology or "doing something to see if we can do it." These robots may lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves.

By the way, Heather Knight is also working on a female version (if these robots have true gender, that is) of Data named Ginger.

We've already landed robots on comets. What's left but stand-up? It's only a matter of time before one of these 'bots has your sides splitting and your face rendered rufescent. Right now it's all kinda cute, but what if we should take this technology through the "uncanny valley?" That's a concept in robotics describing a robot that isn't cute like Data or Ginger and at the same time it can't completely pass for a human. Instead, it occupies an in-between zone where the device is meant to look human but something is It doesn't look quite right. Click on the link for uncanny valley and try to imagine those 'bots doing stand up.

I like to imagine the algorithm breaking down and the result being eerie, cut-up phrases worthy of Burroughs coming out of its mouth. Yeah. That would freak people out nice n good. It would make a great scene or subplot for a David Cronenberg film (not sure it could carry the whole thing.)

Speaking of which, David Cronenberg is publishing a novel.  

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